By Adrian Johansen
For business leaders, accessibility is more than just a legal obligation under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). It is also an ethical responsibility to ensure that you are doing everything you can to ensure that all those who wish to engage with your business can do so easily. This is relevant from both a customer service and employee welfare standpoint. By doing so we can maintain meaningful relationships with consumers, and empower our staff to be productive and innovative contributors.
That doesn’t mean to say that it’s always clear how to go about this. In many ways, industries still have a lot to learn about what practical, operational, and social adjustments we can undertake to make our businesses more inclusive. Often, if we don’t seek the input of those most affected, it can be easy to overlook aspects of accessibility that aren’t immediately obvious to us. However, it is important to take a holistic approach to making your business accessible, rather than having to react to an unexpected need.
So where do you start in making your business accessible to everyone? It can be an overwhelming prospect, but let’s take a closer look at a few key areas.
Go Further Than Compliance
The ADA serves an important purpose. By setting out minimum legal guidelines for accessibility, it gives businesses, staff, and customers alike clarity on what is expected. However, it is also the case that the ADA isn’t especially comprehensive. The legislation doesn’t always account for the varied range of challenges that people experiencing disability might be confronted with. Therefore, to make your business accessible to all, it’s important to treat ADA compliance as your baseline to grow from, rather than the limit of your efforts.
This begins with a stringent approach to compliance. Standards are frequently changing, as is our understanding of accessibility. As such, a member of your staff should be designated to keep on top of current regulations and update policies accordingly. Not only does this ensure that you are operating within legislation, but it also provides you with insights into areas of accessibility that may require more focus. Knowing the basics can provide a jumping-off point for going beyond what is strictly required.
Perhaps your most important step in going beyond compliance is actively seeking external input. If you don’t live with the challenges of disability it can be easy to overlook the more nuanced aspects that make life difficult. You can’t seek to make these decisions from inside an echo chamber. Therefore it can be useful to engage with consultants or charities that can assess your business operations and make suggestions for improvements.
Consider Online Spaces
When we talk about making out businesses more accessible, it can be easy to only consider the physical components. Ensuring that stores and offices can be navigated by those with mobility challenges is a good start, but it’s important to remember that we are living in an increasingly digital world. Around 36% of U.S. consumers are now buying goods online, and that number is only expected to grow. The ADA also now includes websites in the definition of “places of public accommodation” — though the requirements for compliance here are often vague. Therefore we need to put as much consideration into our digital spaces, as those physical areas.
From the perspective of consumers, you must either take the time to review your site for web accessibility or build it from the ground up with these elements in mind. Make certain that all images include alt text so that they can be interpreted by text to speech software. During the design process, consider high contrast color schemes that can make text easily readable to those with visual impairments, and less overwhelming for those with cognitive challenges. Videos are a common part of marketing toolkits, so be sure that these include closed captioning too.
Staff is also increasingly required to make use of digital tools. Ensure that intranet platforms and office software are compatible with assistive technology. When utilizing eLearning platforms for training, make certain that these can be navigated by staff who may experience issues such as dyslexia. Particularly as more businesses are moving to remote operations as a result of COVID-19, choose communications tools that can be viewed, operated, and understood by all staff members.
Think Beyond the Visible
When we take time to consider the challenges to accessibility, we soon begin to understand just how varied these can be. Employees and consumers may be experiencing issues that aren’t immediately visible, and they may not feel comfortable discussing them with you. This doesn’t mean you have any less of a responsibility to make your business an inclusive place for them.
Around 1 in 5 U.S. adults live with mental illness. Therefore, it’s statistically likely that some of your staff and customers will face challenges here. One of the most important aspects of accessibility business leaders can implement is a culture that is actively anti-stigma. Work with mental health charities and organizations to educate your employees about how stigma presents itself, and what the negative effects can be. Help staff to understand neurodiversity, how it may affect both customers and their colleagues, and how they can respond positively.
Day-to-day wellbeing shouldn’t be neglected, either. Mental health isn’t always something that is sustained over a long period, and symptoms may be acute. You should therefore create policies that are designed to minimize the potential for exacerbation. Encourage staff to take regular mental health breaks, and vary their time between the screen and physical activities. Strive to create a low-stress atmosphere, which can be less overwhelming for both staff and visiting consumers. Explore partnering with services that provide confidential phone or in-person counseling when staff is experiencing pressure at work or home.
Whether you’re a brick and mortar business or managing a remote team, accessibility should be a core consideration for your business. Take the time to understand the challenges both consumers and staff face. Don’t just seek to apply regulations; work to make your business truly inclusive.